It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his adult life. That ain't memoir.
Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
When Vladimir Nabokov read his lectures on literature, he closed all the curtains in the room to make it totally dark and started to speak.
“On the horizon of Russian literature, this is Gogol” -- and the small hall light flashed in the corner. “This is Chekhov” -- and one more star appeared on the ceiling. “This is Dostoevsky” -- Nabokov turned the light on here. “And this is Tolstoy!” The lecturer opened the curtains, and a bright blinding sunlight flooded the room.
Count Leo Tolstoy was the first writer who refused a copyright; he was an opponent of the Russian state system; he fulminated an anathema because he did not accept any religious authorities. He had refused the Nobel Prize, he hated money, and he always took the side of peasants. Many of his unique positions and practices are not known today.
He left us 165 000 sheets of manuscripts, 90 volumes of complete works, and 10 000 letters. He had been looking for the meaning of life and the universal happiness throughout his whole life, and he had found them in one word: kindness.
We all know Tolstoy as the author of long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which is why some do not realize that Tolstoy could write powerful short letters, stories, or novels. Indeed, his writings are filled with extremely long sentences and scrupulous levels of detail. Interestingly, his handwriting was often barely legible. The only person who could understand it was his wife, Sophia. She had to re-write War and Peace many times before Leo chose the final version to send to his editors. Here is the example of his handwriting:
One of the first pages I ever created on this website was a biography of William S. Burroughs, and I also typed in a favorite piece of text from his signature novel Naked Lunch, titled Bradley The Buyer. Today is the hundredth birthday of William S. Burroughs, and as part of the celebration I'm running this excerpt again. The illustration was created for this piece for Literary Kicks by the awesome artist Goodloe Byron, proprietor of Stone Bird News.
Some of you have met Eli Stein before; he's written Litkicks articles about P. G. Wodehouse and Al Jaffee, and he's my father. He's also a cartoonist with a body of published work dating back to the 1950s. If you've read a lot of the Wall Street Journal or Chronicle of Higher Education or Good Housekeeping or National Enquirer, you've probably seen his work, and might recognize his clean, round graphic style, which to my admiring filial eye always resembled the classic drawing style of Syd Hoff or Charles Schulz.
Back when I was an art class nerd in high school, I once struggled with an assignment to use "negative space". We were supposed to create a painting or artwork that communicated through the shape or presence of what wasn't there, rather than what was.
I didn't understand the assignment at the time, but I found myself thinking about "negative space" as I tried to figure out what was so fascinating about Gillian Flynn's popular mystery thriller Gone Girl. The palpable tension of the story emerges from the chasm of credibility that lingers between two parallel stories: the alternating first-person narratives of a husband and a wife in a very bad marriage.
Dave Van Ronk's The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a constructed autobiography, pieced together by the singer's friend and admirer Elijah Wald after Van Ronk died of cancer in 2002. Elijah Wald is a roots-music scholar who has also written books like How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Eleven years later, the book he produced from interview recordings and memoir fragments would have given Van Ronk the pleasure of seeing his name pop up in lights as a primary source for the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
Dave Van Ronk would have relished the irony, because his failed flirtations with fame became legendary by the time he died. Flirtation with fame provides the primary plotline for Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie I got excited about when I first heard of its Dave Van Ronk connection, and enjoyed very much when I finally got to see it.
I don't always love a Coen Brothers movie (especially, for instance, when it's a Coen Brothers movie of a Cormac McCarthy novel), but I do always love the music in a Coen Brothers movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is a bonanza of great folk tunes, and the soundtrack is especially rewarding for displaying the wide variety of musical styles of the early 1960s folk boom: Irish brother groups, sea shanty singers, "early music" experts, Appalachian authentics, Beat poets, corny comedians, harmony crewcut groups. Despite the great music, Inside LLewyn Davis isn't quite as spectacular a snapshot of 1960s Greenwich Village culture as their previous O Brother Where Art Thou? was of 1930s Mississippi Delta blues and bluegrass culture. It's a sadder and smaller movie than O Brother, but the film's connection to Van Ronk's Mayor of MacDougal Street amounts to a surprising honor for this little-known but important musician.
I hope my pick for the most significant book of 2013 will surprise you. It surprises me. For one thing, it's not a book. It wasn't published in 2013. And I've never mentioned it on Litkicks before.
Before I explain, here's a quick wrap-up of my year of reading and blogging. There was a lot of philosophy, history and politics. Early in 2013, I got into Jacques Derrida. This was for me a belated discovery (isn't Derrida supposed to be sophomoric? I'm no sophomore) but a happy one. In July I took a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of that amazing Civil War battle, and then went back home to begin obsessively reading a whole lot of books about the American Civil War. I'm planning to write more about the literary legacy of the Civil War as the battlefield sesquicentennials of Wilderness and Spotsylvania loom. Continuing my weird march through what may seem to my readers to be randomly assorted moments (ahh, but they're not!) in American history, I also read and blogged extensively about disgraced Vice-President Spiro Agnew this year.
I wrote a lot about music and film in 2013. The death of Lou Reed, one of my all time favorite singer-songwriters, inspired in me a vast blast of sudden blogging, which was exhausting. As I mentioned in a comment to one of the above posts, I sure hope Bob Dylan has a good doctor, because I don't want to blog that much again anytime soon. I also continued my series of articles about musical memoirs, because it pleases me to do so, and I hope it pleases some of you too. The next installment in the "Great Lost Rock Memoir" series drops in January.
I would have never known about Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books if my younger daughter hadn't been just the right age to catch on and bring the books home. I enjoyed reading them with her very much, and immediately recognized the character as a delightful 1990s version of Ramona G. Quimby, the inquisitive kindergarten scamp of my own generation.
What made Junie B. Jones different was the first-person voice created for her by Barbara Park -- a voice that dared to capture the real word patterns and thought processes of a little kid. Junie's sentences are blunt, stubby and hilariously self-centered.
The pointing finger in this photo belongs to Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist. The pointee is Russell Brand, a brash and popular comedian who has guest-edited a new "Revolution" issue of the New Statesman, in which he says things like this:
Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people … Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.
Here's a timely one, to cap off a week of truly bizarre politics in my country, the United States of America. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi looks like a children's book, with appealing and funny drawings by Alejandro Giraldo, but is written for grown-ups. Each page represents a different common form of logical fallacy.
Generously, the authors have placed the entire book online, where it can hopefully help to unwind all the bad philosophical arguments that are hovering thickly in the air. Logical fallacies are timeless and universal, of course, but this book feels especially relevant now, as my country moves cautiously towards implementation of the sorely needed health insurance reform law known as Obamacare, and free market conservatives, corporate lobbyists, Tea Party congressmen and Ayn Rand followers explode in fury.